There have been plenty of heartwarming stories about the kindness of ordinary people in the face of the coronavirus and subsequent economic shutdown. Few of these stories transcend centuries, but here’s one that does.
The Washington Post reported that 24,000 residents of Ireland have donated $820,000 to an online fundraiser set up by American Indian volunteers, who sought food and other supplies for families on the Hopi and Navajo reservations in three Western states as the tribes struggled with the virus.
The motivation for the gifts is the fascinating part of the story. It turns out that in 1847, members of the Choctaw tribe, who had been forcibly relocated to what is now Oklahoma, heard of families in Ireland struggling to survive the infamous Potato Famine.
The Choctaws, who learned firsthand about suffering when forced by the American government to move in 1831, collected $170 and sent it to a group in New York that was raising money to help the Irish. A Choctaw historian believes the sad story — 1 million people died in the Potato Famine and another 2 million emigrated, many to the United States — resonated with her ancestors, who had survived the Trail of Tears just 16 years before.
This was a relatively small gift — with inflation, it would amount to about $5,000 today — but it’s a tremendously impressive one when you consider that the tribe was still struggling to adapt to its new home and didn’t have much to spare. An Arkansas publication noted the irony of people in the New World “bestowing alms upon the people of the Old World.”
Somehow, neither benefactor nor recipient forgot the gesture. In 2017, the Oklahoma Choctaw chief went to Midleton, Ireland for the dedication of a 20-foot-tall “Kindred Spirits” sculpture that commemorates the gift.
The sculpture may have prompted today’s generosity. Like the Choctaw members 173 years ago, the Irishmen who are helping the Hopi and Navajo have never met anyone from either tribe and probably never will. But a donor explained his motivation perfectly when he wrote on the fundraiser website, “I am a grateful Irishman. Thank you to the Choctaw nation for their humanity in Ireland’s darkest days.”
It turns out that the descendants of Oklahoma Choctaw tribe that made the original gift doesn’t need financial assistance to cope with the virus. The tribe has built up an endowment that it has used to help ailing members. The two Western tribes are less fortunate. A Navajo member who started the fundraising appeal said the gifts from Ireland are a testament to the country’s kindheartedness and generosity.
A total of $3.6 million has been donated. The supplies have helped 4,300 households, focusing on those who are raising grandchildren, have underlying health conditions or who have tested positive for the virus. The money is great, but repaying an act of charity from 1847 is what makes this virus story a truly special one.